A soil geochemical survey was conducted in a 27,000-km2 study area of northern California that includes the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Sacramento Valley, and the northern Coast Range. The results show that soil geochemistry in the Sacramento Valley is controlled primarily by the transport and weathering of parent material from the Coast Range to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east. Chemically and mineralogically distinctive ultramafic (UM) rocks (e.g. serpentinite) outcrop extensively in the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada. These rocks and the soils derived from them have elevated concentrations of Cr and Ni. Surface soil samples derived from UM rocks of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range contain 1700-10,000 mg/kg Cr and 1300-3900 mg/kg Ni. Valley soils west of the Sacramento River contain 80-1420 mg/kg Cr and 65-224 mg/kg Ni, reflecting significant contributions from UM sources in the Coast Range. Valley soils on the east side contain 30-370 mg/kg Cr and 16-110 mg/kg Ni. Lower Cr and Ni concentrations on the east side of the valley are the result of greater dilution by granitic sources of the Sierra Nevada. Chromium occurs naturally in the Cr(III) and Cr(VI) oxidation states. Trivalent Cr is a non-toxic micronutrient, but Cr(VI) is a highly soluble toxin and carcinogen. X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy of soils with an UM parent show Cr primarily occurs within chromite and other mixed-composition spinels (Al, Mg, Fe, Cr). Chromite contains Cr(III) and is highly refractory with respect to weathering. Comparison of a 4-acid digestion (HNO3, HCl, HF, HClO4), which only partially dissolves chromite, and total digestion by lithium metaborate (LiBO3) fusion, indicates a lower proportion of chromite-bound Cr in valley soils relative to UM source soils. Groundwater on the west side of the Sacramento Valley has particularly high concentrations of dissolved Cr ranging up to 50 ??g L-1 and averaging 16.4 ??g L-1. This suggests redistribution of Cr during weathering and oxidation of Cr(III)-bearing minerals. It is concluded that regional-scale transport and weathering of ultramafic-derived constituents have resulted in enrichment of Cr and Ni in the Sacramento Valley and a partial change in the residence of Cr.
Additional publication details
A regional-scale study of chromium and nickel in soils of northern California, USA